The Lord selects his people, the humble: Zephaniah 2

The Lord’s people will triumph—but who are the Lord’s people?  They are those who accept the Lord’s mercy in humility.  As opposed to those in 1:12-13 who believe that the Lord can neither do good nor evil, these humble ones understand that their survival proves the Lord’s mercy.  They are “martyrs” or witnesses that the Lord can and does do evil–by destroying the civilizations of the known world–and does good–by saving the humble ones who accept the Lord’s power.

Humility accepts the Lord’s mercy—he was leveling everyone and he could have not spared you.  Haughtiness assumes one’s own power—you don’t see any problem, so you assume you have it all under control.  This is only a dream, and the Lord destroys to awaken the people.  They can live and thrive as the Lord’s nation only if they submit to his ultimate power.

The Lord’s people must gather

Danger is coming, as the Lord announced in ch. 1, so ch. 2 begins with the Lord warning his people to be humble and gather together (vv. 1-3).  Gathering together displays the people’s humble recognition that the Lord’s day of judgement is approaching.  By listening to the prophet’s warning, they come together as one, humble people.  The resulting gathered individuals will comprise a humble nation that the Lord will favor.  One must decide now to join this people by heeding the warning.

The people will triumph like Israel in Joshua and Judges

While the most common reference to Torah we find in the Book of the XII points to Exodus, this chapter refers to Joshua and Judges as the Lord conquers the land again–this time, from the Philistines, the principle antagonist in Judges.  The first phase is destroying the Philistines (vv. 4-7).  The Philistines lived in a five-city confederation called a “Pentapolis,” consisting of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.  In this passage the first four are destroyed (Gath is not mentioned in this passage), and the prophet describes their fates through word-play on their names:

  • Gaza will be “abandoned”.  This plays on the Hebrew name for the city, ‘azah, and “abandoned,” ‘azuvah;
  • Ashkelon will be a “desolation”.  There is not much of a word-play here, unless one infers a potential play on the root sh-q-l, meaning “weigh.”  This verb sometime comes in the context of judgement, but that is not clear here;
  • Ashdod will be “destroyed”.  The name Ashdod, includes the root sh-d-d, meaning “destroy”, and the text says they will be “driven out”;
  • Ekron will be “uprooted”.  The clearest word-play comes here as the city name includes the root ‘-q-r which means “uproot”, just as the Lord threatens.

The cities thus live up to their “nature” as revealed by their names; their names “prove” that they were destined for destruction.  Beyond the fate of the Philistine cities, the Lord holds the whole area in his sites.

  • Woe to the dwellers of the “sea coasts”.  The literal translation of this phrase is “region of the sea.”  The word for “region” is xevel, which can alternatively be translated as “destruction”.  The latter meaning produces the phrase, “Woe to the dwellers of the destruction of the sea”, which fits this context well;
  • The nation of the Cherethites will be “cut off”.  The nature of these people is obscure, but their name includes the root k-r-t, meaning “cut (off)”.

The Lord contextualizes the process of destruction through the image of the displacement of the Canaanites.  The reference to Joshua comes as the prophet equates “Canaan” with the “Land of the Philistines.”  The people will conquer the Philistines as the Israelites conquered Canaan in Joshua.

A final, dark play on words concludes this section.  The Lord will “visit them” and will “return” on them their “payment.”  The ambiguity expresses the dual nature of the Lord’s judgement: either a visit will be good news with a beneficial payment, or bad news with harsh payment.  The sentence is unclear as judgment has not taken place.

Pride: The nemesis of the Lord’s people

The Moabites and Ammonites display the central characteristic of the Lord’s enemies–pride–and the Lord’s humble people will inherit their land, as a result (vv. 8-11).  The insults and haughtiness against the Lord’s people merit utter destruction, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moreover, it will be the “remnant” of Israel–those that humbly gathered in the beginning of the chapter–that will destroy them.

The language describing the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin is ambiguous.  They “boast about their border,” but the word for “boast” here means “make large; grow”, so the boast also sounds like a land-grab: they grow (themselves) over their borders.  Since the land belongs to the Lord, and he has given portions to all the nations, the Moabites and Ammonites rebel against this deity by attempting to take what the Lord gave to another nation.

As a result of the Moabites’ and Ammonites’ sin, the remnant of Israel will inherit their land.  The humble will now inherit the land that was previously owned by the proud.  Only the Lord among all the deities will remain in this place.

Israel, as the Lord’s people, are defined by gathering humbly.  The Lord’s enemies are recognized as proud, insulting the humble, and growing beyond their allotted borders.

The land belongs to the Lord

The Lord will take over the entire world (vv. 12-14).  In the US we have the expression “from sea to shining sea” that signifies the country in its entire expanse.  “From Cush to Assyria” functions the same way for the ancients.  For the ancient world, Cush lies in the extreme southwest of civilization, along the Nile river, while Assyria lies in the extreme northeast, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  The Lord will destroy the entire expanse of the Near East, from river to river, from Southwest to Northeast.  He will return the world to its natural state, destroying civilizations and reducing Nineveh to nothing.  No longer a home to the most powerful people in the world, these cities will house wild animals–with no humans to shoo them away.

Verse 15 ends the chapter with a statement of ultimate pride: “I, and nothing else besides me” (אני ואפסי עוד).  This is the statement of the rich and comfortable, who have no concern, who believe themselves to be masters of their own destiny.  Like those in 1:12-13 who say, “The Lord will neither do good nor do evil,” they don’t think that the Lord can have any effect on their lives.  By spreading complete destruction, the Lord hopes to teach about reality: that he can do good and do evil, that there is someone besides the rich and comfortable, so that the people can become humble and decide to submit to becoming members of the Lord’s people.

Choosing humility

The people must choose between reality, that the Lord is all-powerful and can spare you from destruction, and fantasy, that they can protect themselves from destruction.  The Lord will bring destruction across the known world, erasing its civilizations.  If one is spared, survival results from the Lord’s mercy; he did not have to spare you.  He will restore the land to its original state, and offering it as an inheritance to his people, the humble recipients of mercy whom he spared.  His people, though, will consist of those who are willing to submit to him, recognizing his ultimate ability to do good and evil.  Comfort beguiles the people, thinking that they have control.  Thus they have a choice: submit to the Lord’s ultimate power or attempt to control their own destiny and rebel.

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